For the last year and some change, I’ve gone from using Opera as my primary browser to using Mozilla Firefox. I have a variety of reasons for this switch, and it was a somewhat gradual one, but as I detailed in a recent post, despite it being my browser of choice, I still feel that it has a lot of shortcomings, and as such, it needs a lot of tweaking out-of-the-box before I find it usable.
So this is a writeup of the things I do to Firefox — in this particular case Firefox 4 — immediately after I install it. It used to be a much shorter list, but these days it’s getting more and more involved, so this writeup is as much for my own purposes, as a checklist of sorts, as it is to share my thoughts with others on how to tweak Firefox 4.
First things first: Add-ons
Most browsers, like most other applications these days, are engaged in a race with each other to remove as much functionality and to mix up and obfuscate as many features in the UI as possible. Firefox is no exception.
The trend these days is to remove things and replace them with stuff that’s less useful, or with nothing at all.
Fortunately, unlike some browsers, Firefox still has a thriving add-ons pool out there, and while I hate that with each new major version of Firefox I’m having to install more and more add-ons to make up for feature assassination, at least I still have the option to do so. For now.
So these days I’m installing a bunch of them. To be fair, only some of these add-ons are addressing what I consider to be “shortcomings” in Firefox; some of them are just to give me some extra functionality I wouldn’t normally expect a browser to do natively, or to deal with some site-specific behavior I find annoying or unsecure.
Here are my installed Firefox add-ons, in alphabetical order:
- Adblock Plus
- Better Facebook
- Facebook Blocker
- HTTPS Everywhere
- MafiaaFire Redirector
- Speed Dial
- Tab Mix Plus
Want to speed up your web browsing? The easiest way to do that is to get rid of the stuff your browser is trying to load that’s slowing it down. These days most of the time that’s ads. AdBlock Plus is a great add-on that references 3rd party lists that are always being updated, so it doesn’t take any real maintenance on the user’s part to keep your browsing experience relatively ad-free.
As a bonus, AdBlock Plus adds the ability for users to block content piecemeal, which, since Firefox doesn’t have that ability natively, gives the user a bit more control than he/she would otherwise have.
When I first tried out the Better Facebook add-on last year I discovered that while I liked the myriad options it offered, it slowed down my browsing so much that I considered it unusable.
Since then, however, the developer of this full-featured add-on has tightened up performance on it by a huge amount, and now I consider this add-on to be a must have for any Facebook user. It takes a lot of the stupid, pointless interface roulette changes the Facebook developers like to introduce at random (often apparently without testing for major bugs first) and makes them optional to the end users, in addition to addressing a number of pretty serious privacy problems.
It gives the user a lot more control over what is shared, and with privacy as sketchy as it is on Facebook, I think we can all agree that more control for the users is a good thing. Give it a try if you haven’t already, it’s one you should not miss if you use Facebook even a little bit.
Like the Better Facebook add-on I just discussed, the Facebook Blocker add-on addresses a shortcoming of Facebook and the web at large these days, not so much a problem with Firefox. This little gem blocks the Facebook objects so many sites are embedding these days that automagically load outside of Facebook itself.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think CNN.com needs to see my “Likes” or my friends list, so I’d prefer if those scripts simply didn’t exist on other sites. The Facebook Blocker makes that happen.
After being an Opera browser user for years, I grew accustomed to mouse gestures as a part of my normal usage of the application, and when I switched to Firefox I really missed that functionality.
FireGestures is a slick, basic little add-on that brings that to Firefox, with the straightforward ones already defined, and it gives the user the ability to define new gestures and customize the ones it comes with as well.
Like Adblock Plus, the Flashblock add-on automatically blocks objects that I have found can be obnoxious and performance draining, but in this case just anything made out of Adobe Flash.
Instead of auto-playing all Flash content on any website, Flashblock simply replaces each object with a simple play button, so the user can selectively play just the Flash content he or she wants.
I recently reformatted and rebuilt my laptop and when I set up Firefox on it, I left off Flashblock… and boy did I miss it. Immediately. A web without Flashblock is a pretty annoying one. Install this one for sure. You won’t be sorry.
Kids, this one is a long time coming. Flash performance under Linux is dismal, and Adobe’s basic attitude is pretty much “Hey, you should count yourselves lucky we even OFFER Linux Flash plugin… so what, you want it to WORK WELL too? Whatever!”
This add-on is a great way to just take Adobe out of the picture, particularly if you watch a lot of movies on Youtube. FlashVideoReplacer lets you render the embedded video in the local codec of choice, like MP4. And suddenly the sluggish, choppy Flash video performance goes away, and is replaced by clear, smooth playback. It’s just that easy.
I’ve been using it for about a week now and it’s really slick. I haven’t had any problems whatsoever, and as a bonus, it works flawlessly with the Flashblock add-on as well. Enjoy this one!
More and more parts of the web are available via HTTPS instead of the less-secure HTTP. To automagically redirect my surfing to the more secure versions of these sites, I have the HTTPS Everywhere add-on installed in Firefox. It provides a list of sites and checkboxes one can uncheck if for whatever reason it is causing any problems or if one wishes to view the HTTP version of the site.
This is one of those things that, face it, simply should just be part of Firefox. I really only use this for one thing. To disable one of the default keybindings in Firefox that was causing me problems. And search as I might, I could find no way to do this in Firefox natively, which I find extremely frustrating and confusing.
In Firefox 4 they introduced tab groups. While not necessarily a “killer” new feature, I have discovered that it can be useful, and I like the keyboard shortcut to get to the tab group screen:
Unfortunately, it’s somewhat easy to accidentally hit
ctrl+shift+w by mistake, which closes the browser.
Nice. Not two shortcuts you want next to each other. Plus,
alt+f4 already closes the window… is there really a compelling reason we need ANOTHER window closing keyboard shortcut for Firefox?
I don’t think so. So I install the keyconfig add-on so that I can do one thing and one thing only with it: disable
ctrl+shift+w. That’s it.
Keyconfig does other stuff too. So those of you out there who wish you could easily change/add/create keyboard shortcuts in Firefox will find this useful.
This add-on undoes the damage governments have done to the web by seizing domain names, and it automatically redirects the specific sites to their backup domains. Fight censorship, support free speech, and stick it to the man. Mozilla is. Last month they famously refused a demand by the US Department of Homeland Security to remove access to this add-on, mainly because the demand wasn’t legal, and neither are the domain seizures. Fight the power!
Google’s well known “don’t be evil” mantra has entered popular culture in technology circles. But that doesn’t mean you have to trust that they’ll behave themselves. The OptimizeGoogle add-on lets users fix some of the more privacy-invasive activities Google engages in for those who use their services, and it allows the user to disable some of the more annoying behavior as well, such as Youtube ads and ads in Gmail.
I first grew accustomed to the whole speed dial idea in Opera 9.something. Shortly after Opera introduced this feature in their browser, it started showing up in other browsers, though not as elegantly implemented in my opinion.
Firefox of course has no native speed dial functionality, but the Speed Dial add-on does this well, and has lots of useful features that none of the other browsers even do — like speed dial groups, which I really like.
I’ve grown so accustomed to using the Speed Dial add-on, I no longer use bookmarks for much at all. Instead, I have all the sites I regularly visit set up in one of two Speed Dial groups, and I periodically export my Speed Dial settings to a file I keep in Dropbox for safe keeping.
Just as a brief explanation for why I do it this way instead of using bookmark syncing, I do know some people use bookmark syncing and I know there are other add-ons that can do this, but most of the time, I actually want different shortcuts to sites depending on which computer I’m on… so syncing them is actually a feature I don’t really need.
Here’s another one whose functionality used to be in Firefox, but it was removed. To get your status bar back, complete with progress bar and downloads indicator, this simple add-on works perfectly. I think it’s just plain stupid that I now need to install an add-on for this, but that seems to be the direction everyone’s headed these days.
I figure by Firefox 10 the whole browser will be a natively-functionless add-on framework, and to get basic functions most of us enjoy natively in Firefox today, we’ll be installing 20-30 add-ons to handle the simple things.
So I think we need to get used to add-ons like Status-4-Evar. We’ll be seeing a lot more add-ons like it in the near future.
Tab Mix Plus
This one is necessary in order to control a lot of bad default tab behavior that Firefox simply doesn’t provide settings for users to change. Tab Mix Plus is often the first add-on I install when I set up a fresh installation of Firefox. I find the browser intolerable without it.
Next step: preferences
After I get all my add-ons installed, I go to Edit and select Preferences and start changing stuff. I don’t change everything, but I do tweak a handful of things I consider important.
On the General tab
Right away here I change my homepage to my iGoogle homepage. It’s where I keep most of my main news RSS feeds plus a few other useful gadgets, and I like to see this right away when I fire up my browser.
The very next thing I do on the General preferences tab is select the Always ask me where to save files radio button.
This leads me to a minor rant. I do tech support frequently. Do you have ANY idea how many times I’ve spoken to a non-technical user over the phone and walked them through downloading something, only to have them express that they have no idea where Firefox put the file they downloaded?
THIS SETTING IS THE REASON FOR THAT. Mozilla devs, if you’re listening at all, PLEASE change this default to “always ask”. It’s far more intuitive that way, and you’ll save a lot of people a lot of hassle over what is really a very stupid default behavior. Thanks.
The Tabs… uh, tab
I don’t change anything under this; instead I manage all of the tabbed browsing behavior via the Tab Mix Plus add-on options. However, in Tab Mix Plus, I don’t actually change that much. I “Enable single window mode”, which in my opinion should be the default in any tabbed browser.
I also use Tab Mix Plus’ options to force the search bar to open results in new tabs, and I add the “Closed Tabs” button to my toolbar so it’s easily accessible. I typically also set my middle-click to close any tabs I middle-click on and middle-click on the tab bar opens a new one, just for convenience. Tab Mix Plus can do a whole lot more than this, but for now that’s pretty much all I’m doing with it.
The Content tab
I don’t tweak anything in the Content tab in Firefox.
The Applications tab
Here I change a lot of things that automatically play content in browsers to “Always ask”. I’d rather play wav files and video files locally, because in my experience it causes fewer problems with browser crashes, et cetera that way.
The Privacy tab
Here I change a bunch of stuff. I select the “Use custom settings for history” option from the top dropdown menu, and then I check “Remember my browsing history”, but I uncheck “remember my download history” and “remember my search and form history”.
I like having my browser remember my history session by session, but have no use for my download or form history, and I have “clear history when Firefox closes” checked anyway. Under that, I have it hang onto cookies and active logins, but I have it clearing everything else, including saved passwords (even though I tell it not to remember passwords anyway).
Also on the “Privacy” tab, I make use of one option I wish was in Chrome: “When using the location bar, suggest: NOTHING”.
I know I’m probably unusual in this, but I don’t want my browser to suggest sites for me from the address bar. I already know where I’m going when I’m typing something in there, and I find the suggestions dropdown to be annoying and extremely distracting, so I turn all suggestions off.
That’s one of the biggest dealbreakers for me in Chrome/Chromium. Fortunately they haven’t removed that option in Firefox yet. Of course, now that I pointed it out, I’m sure that one’ll be the next to go, right?
The Security tab
Under “Security” I uncheck “Remember passwords for sites”. I’ve never felt comfortable with my browser remembering passwords, and my paranoia is justified since there have been a number of security issues with browsers — Firefox included — storing saved passwords in questionable ways. So I don’t use this, and I probably never will, but I don’t really have much need for my browser to remember passwords for me. Your mileage may vary, of course.
The Sync tab
I don’t use Firefox Sync, so I don’t do anything on this tab in the Preferences window.
The Advanced tab
Here I turn on autoscrolling, which is particularly nice if you’re reading a really long article, or if you’re trying to play along on a guitar to a song whose sheet music you’re displaying from a webpage or something.
And that’s pretty much all I do on this particular Preferences tab.
Last but not least, the toolbar
The Firefox team hit some sort of hidden “shuffle up the interface” button on their end, because the toolbar and UI is all mixed up in Firefox 4.
To fix this, the very first thing I do is go to View and Toolbars and UNCHECK “tabs on top”, so that the tabs are back in their correct location. Why anybody would want the tabs in the wrong place is beyond me, but, like Opera, at least the Firefox team was courteous enough to we ignorant end users to leave us with the option to fix that arrangement.
Next, I right-click on the toolbar, select “customize”, and then drag the “Home” button — which is for some reason randomly all the way over to the right now — back to where it belongs, just to the left of the address bar.
Then I do the same thing with the “Reload” and “Stop” buttons, which are, in Firefox 4, randomly relocated between the address bar and the search bar.
Finally, to conserve space, I check the “use small icons” checkbox.
After all this, I have what is pretty much the Firefox 3.6.* UI, which in my opinion is what they should have stuck with.
And yes, I know. That little screenshot is showing GNU IceCat, but that’s what I’m using these days, and for all intents and purposes it has the same exact issues as vanilla Firefox 4 with respect to add-ons needed, preferences changed and interface tweaks done.
I remember when it used to take me only a couple of minutes to get a fresh Firefox install behaving sanely.
While I’ll freely admit that some of the add-ons I use aren’t things I expect to see natively in every browser, a lot of them still are, and that number just keeps going up with each release, it seems like.
My other complaint with Firefox 4 seems to be just the completely random approach to making the interface harder for users to use.
Tabs on top is a stupid default arrangement, and while I’ll grant that some users prefer it that way, most do not. It means mousing farther to get to the tab bar, and because of that it’s simply not as friendly.
Still, it’s a preference, and I can change it, so I can really only complain so far.
But why they chose to randomize the locations of standard toolbar buttons in this release positively baffles me. It’s like they went out of their way to move stuff, just for the sake of moving it. If you don’t have an actual practical reason for changing something like that, just leave it be, guys. Moving things just for the sake of moving them is just annoying and frustrating to your users, and it just adds that many more steps for us to put things back where they belong.
Unfortunately, that’s the world in which we live, and, sadly, Firefox is still the browser that annoys me the least, even with all the additional add-ons, preferences, tweaks, and UI fixing steps it now takes to make it behave sanely.
It’s now getting to the point where I actually need a set list like this one just so I can get through it quicker and without missing as many little steps and tweaks.
I find that to be somewhat sad, but, like I keep saying, at least in Firefox we have the option to fix the out-of-the-box wrong behavior, and hopefully we get to keep it that way.